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TSS TIME MACHINE: The Murder of Stanley Ketchel

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When a great boxer dies, sportswriters everywhere make encapsulating statements about him. As time goes on, many of them are forgotten until only the wittiest, pithiest quote survives. For the great middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel, the surviving statement came from John Lardner: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”

The quote certainly seems fitting. Born Stanis?aw Kiecal in 1887 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he was the only one of his friends who would dive into the Grand River from moving freight cars off of high bridges. At 12, he left home and lived hand-to-mouth roaming the American West. In Butte, Montana, he worked as bouncer and decided to become a professional boxer at the age of 16 because as he put it: “I don’t fight only because I like it. I fight also because I can make more money at it than I could be shoveling sand around the equator—and make it a lot quicker.”

And make it he did. Ketchel earned an estimated $100,000 in the ring ($2.4 million in today’s dollars) and spent most of it through fast living and generosity. He laid claim to the middleweight title at 20 and waged war over it for the next three years with fighters of the caliber of Billy Papke and Hugo Kelly. When he was finished, he had became the standard for which all middleweights would be measured for the first half of the 20th Century.

On October 16, 1909. Ketchel fought the most famous bout of his career, a heavyweight title match with Jack Johnson. The famous story is that both fighters agreed to carry the fight as long as possible to maximize their film profits. However, when Johnson lowered his guard in the 12th round, Ketchel sent him to the canvas with a vicious right. Johnson got up and responded with one of the most brutal knockouts ever captured on film, taking out four of Ketchel’s front teeth.

Less than one year later by a day, Stanley Ketchel would be dead. But the last year of his life and his subsequent murder were, at the very least, complicated.

The weeks and months that followed the Johnson fight were simply awful for Ketchel. First, his long-time manager, Willus Britt, died unexpectedly 12 days after the bout. Ketchel was devastated and quickly spiraled into heavy drinking and the nightlife of San Francisco, his home at the time.

Then he lost his championship belt. Not in the ring, in a hotel in Chicago. The diamond-studded belt, valued at $1,200 ($29,000 today), was never found.

The hard living began to affect his performances in the ring as well. 1910 was full of unexceptional performances, by his standards, and also cancellations. In March, Ketchel fought to draw with future middleweight champion Frank Klaus in Pittsburgh. He suffered a broken hand in the fight and then had to cancel his April 10 title fight with Hugo Kelly in New Orleans.

Ketchel returned to the ring in late April to face Sam Langford, the best boxer to never receive a title shot because of his race. The two met in Philadelphia in a six-round no-decision, non-title bout that was supposed to be a precursor to a future middleweight title fight in San Francisco. It turned out to be a ho-hum affair with the majority of the newspaper reporters in attendance giving the decision to Langford.

Ketchel fought three more times, knocking out Porky Dan Flynn and Willie Lewis within a span of 11 days. In his final bout, a fifth-round knockout of Jim Smith on June 10 in New York, Ketchel waved to the ecstatic crowd and hopped over the ropes to leave the ring. Little did anyone know that it would be the last time he would do so.

Up next for Ketchel was a trip to Reno, Nevada, for the “Fight of the Century” between Johnson and Jim Jeffries. When Ketchel entered Jeffries’ camp, the former heavyweight champion said, “I don’t want you here. You have been fooling around with that Negro and I don’t think you belong here at all.” At first Ketchel grinned, then Jeffries said, “Put that fellow out,” and he was escorted out of the camp.

Ketchel only embarrassed himself further by concocting a plan to save Jeffries from humiliation by Johnson. When being introduced in the ring as a celebrity guest, he would walk over to Jeffries to shake his hand and then knock him out cold. When promoter Tex Rickard learned of his plan, he put a number of measures in place to make sure Ketchel came nowhere near Jeffries on the day of the fight.

By August, his health had deteriorated to a point where he had to cancel a fight with Bill Lang in New York. Ketchel first went to Grand Rapids, then to Conway, Missouri, to the ranch of longtime family friend Colonel H.P. Dickerson. Ketchel had bought 32,000 acres of land outside of Grand Rapids so the time at Dickerson’s would allow him recuperate and make money off the land he had purchased.

From there, things became murky. Dickerson hired a ranch hand and housekeeper, a husband and wife named Walter Hurtz and Goldie Smith, through a local employment agency. When they arrived, Dickerson told them that Ketchel was in charge.

Ketchel’s health seemed to be improving. In early October, he accepted an offer of $30,000 to defend his title against Sam McVea in Paris. However, it would never happen.

On the morning of October 15, Smith was serving breakfast to Ketchel, who sat with his back to the door, when Hurtz entered carrying the champion’s .22 caliber rifle. Ketchel always carried a .45 revolver, but had sent for the rifle so he could personally rid the farm of gophers and other rodents.

“Throw up your hands,” ordered Hurtz.

Ketchel did not realize how serious Hurtz was and began to turn towards him. Hurtz responded by shooting him in the back. The bullet went through Ketchel’s right lung and he fell to the floor.

Hurtz quickly ran out of the house, stopped and then went back inside. He took Ketchel’s pistol and hit him in the head with it. As he ran into the yard for the second time, he yelled to ranch foreman C.E. Bailey, “Ketchel can’t tell me how to run my business.” (Initial news stories reported that Ketchel had reprimanded Hurtz for his treatment of a horse.) Then Hurtz went on the lam.

Dickerson was immediately summoned to his ranch. When he went to Ketchel, the mortally wounded fighter whispered, “Take me home to mom, Pete.” Ketchel then lost consciousness.

The situation was hopeless since the bullet had hit a vessel in Ketchel’s lung and his pleural cavity was filling with blood. Dickerson nevertheless chartered a train with three physicians to transport Ketchel to Springfield, Missouri, which was about 40 miles away. Ketchel briefly regained consciousness around 6:00 pm that evening, but his condition quickly worsened and he died in Springfield Hospital.

In the days that followed, authorities learned that Hurtz’s real name was Walter Dipley and he was a deserter from the U.S. Navy. To make matters worse by early 20th Century morality standards, he and Smith were not even married.

Dickerson offered a $5,000 award for Dipley, but not dead or alive, just dead. In fact, when Dipley was arrested after a man named Thomas Haggard informed police that he was staying at his home in Niangua, Missouri, Dickerson refused to pay him. Haggard had to take him to court to collect his reward.

Goldie Smith was arrested as well and both were charged with murdering Ketchel. A trial date was set for January of 1911.

When hearing of Ketchel’s murder, the heavyweight champion Johnson said, “It’s really too bad about poor Stanley. He was a great fighter. Not a boxer, but a real fighter and there are not many real fighters in the game.”

Ketchel’s funeral was held in Grand Rapids on October 20. Before his coffin was even placed in the ground, middleweight contenders began staking their claim for the title. Langford, Kelly, Papke, Klaus and Eddie McGorty all made their case for why each of them was the rightful champion. In the end, Klaus defeated Papke and Georges Carpentier to win the vacant title in 1913.

When the trial took place in January, the prosecution argued that Dipley and Smith had conspired to murder Ketchel. Unbeknownst to the two, Ketchel had given most of his estimated $10,000 in money and jewels to Dickerson for safekeeping. However, he normally carried $500-1,000 in cash. Both the money and a five-karat diamond ring on his finger were taken from him after he was shot. In addition, Smith normally set his place at the table facing the door, but on that particular morning, the table was set for his back to be to the door.

The defense pulled no punches, claiming that Ketchel had raped or tried to rape Smith and threatened to kill her if he told anyone. Dipley’s attorney argued that the two were innocent because of the “unwritten law,” which gave a husband the right to kill any man who violates his wife.

The defense then raised the notion that Dickerson’s machinations in the case, the gathering of witnesses and reporting of stolen money, were because he was actually Ketchel’s father. When Julia Ketchel, Stanley’s mother, was asked by reporters if that was so, she said, “That’s an embarrassing question and I do not like to answer it unless necessary. However, if on my answer to that question hinges the conviction of Stanley’s murder I will tell the whole truth in regard to it.”

She never had to tell even part of the story. Dickerson was too emotionally distraught to attend the trial the day Smith and Dipley testified. Neither he nor Julia Ketchel was called to testify and for those reasons, the judge ruled that the question of Stanley’s paternity was irrelevant.

The jury deliberated for 17 hours before returning with first-degree murder convictions for both Dipley and Smith. Because the two were sentenced together and executing women was considered inhumane at the time, both were given life in prison.

The case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which determined there was no evidence that Smith had conspired to murder Ketchel. She left prison on May 9, 1912, moved back to Springfield, married a fourth husband and spent her last days selling items from her front porch. Dipley was paroled in 1934 and died of kidney disease in Utah in 1956.

Did Ketchel really rape Smith or was the whole event a bungled robbery? No one will really ever know because there is no evidence to really answer that question today. However, a couple of facts following the trial do shed some light on whether Dickerson was Ketchel’s father. Despite being unwilling to pay the reward for a living, breathing Dipley, Dickerson did spend $5,000 on a 12-foot marble monument to stand over Ketchel’s grave. He also turned Ketchel’s room at his ranch house into a bit of shrine. On the anniversary of his death, Dickerson would shut himself in it for days and drink and cry.

If Ketchel wasn’t Dickerson’s son, he sure did love him like one.

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2015 Fight of the Year – Francisco Vargas vs Takashi Miura

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The WBC World Super Featherweight title bout between Francisco Vargas and Takashi Miura came on one of the biggest boxing stages of 2015, as the bout served as the HBO pay-per-view’s co-main event on November 21st, in support of Miguel Cotto vs Saul Alvarez.

Miura entered the fight with a (29-2-2) record and he was making the fifth defense of his world title, while Vargas entered the fight with an undefeated mark of (22-0-1) in what was his first world title fight. Both men had a reputation for all-out fighting, with Miura especially earning high praise for his title defense in Mexico where he defeated Sergio Thompson in a fiercely contested battle.

The fight started out hotly contested, and the intensity never let up. Vargas seemed to win the first two rounds, but by the fourth round, Miura seemed to pull ahead, scoring a knock-down and fighting with a lot of confidence. After brawling the first four rounds, Miura appeared to settle into a more technical approach. Rounds 5 and 6 saw the pendulum swing back towards Vargas, as he withstood Miura’s rush to open the fifth round and the sixth round saw both men exchanging hard punches.

The big swinging continued, and though Vargas likely edged Miura in rounds 5 and 6, Vargas’ face was cut in at least two spots and Miura started to assert himself again in rounds 7 and 8. Miura was beginning to grow in confidence while it appeared that Vargas was beginning to slow down, and Miura appeared to hurt Vargas at the end of the 8th round.

Vargas turned the tide again at the start of the ninth round, scoring a knock down with an uppercut and a straight right hand that took Miura’s legs and sent him to the canvas. Purely on instinct, Miura got back up and continued to fight, but Vargas was landing frequently and with force. Referee Tony Weeks stepped in to stop the fight at the halfway point of round 9 as Miura was sustaining a barrage of punches.

Miura still had a minute and a half to survive if he was going to get out of the round, and it was clear that he was not going to stop fighting.

A back and forth battle of wills between two world championship level fighters, Takashi Miura versus “El Bandido” Vargas wins the 2015 Fight of the Year.

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Jan 9 in Germany – Feigenbutz and De Carolis To Settle Score

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This coming Saturday, January 9th, the stage is set at the Baden Arena in Offenburg, Germany for a re-match between Vincent Feigenbutz and Giovanni De Carolis. The highly anticipated re-match is set to air on SAT.1 in Germany, and Feigenbutz will once again be defending his GBU and interim WBA World titles at Super Middleweight.

The first meeting between the two was less than three months ago, on October 17th and that meeting saw Feigenbutz controversially edge De Carolis on the judge’s cards by scores of (115-113, 114-113 and 115-113). De Carolis scored a flash knock down in the opening round, and he appeared to outbox Feigenbutz in the early going, but the 20 year old German champion came on in the later rounds.

The first bout is described as one of the most crowd-pleasing bouts of the year in Germany, and De Carolis and many observers felt that the Italian had done enough to win.

De Carolis told German language website RAN.DE that he was more prepared for the re-match, and that due to the arrogance Feigenbutz displayed in the aftermath of the first fight, he was confident that he had won over some of the audience. Though De Carolis fell short of predicting victory, he promised a re-vamped strategy tailored to what he has learned about Feigenbutz, whom he termed immature and inexperienced.

The stage is set for Feigenbutz vs De Carolis 2, this Saturday January 9th in Offenburg, Germany. If you can get to the live event do it, if not you have SAT.1 in Germany airing the fights, and The Boxing Channel right back here for full results.

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2015 Knock Out of the Year – Saul Alvarez KO’s James Kirkland

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On May 9th of 2015, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez delivered a resonant knock-out of James Kirkland on HBO that wins the 2015 KO of the Year.

The knock-out itself came in the third round, after slightly more than two minutes of action. The end came when Alvarez delivered a single, big right hand that caught Kirkland on the jaw and left him flat on his back after spinning to the canvas.Alvarez was clearly the big star heading into the fight. The fight was telecast by HBO for free just one week after the controversial and disappointing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, and Alvarez was under pressure to deliver the type of finish that people were going to talk about. Kirkland was happy to oblige Alvarez, taking it right to Alvarez from the start. Kirkland’s aggression saw him appear to land blows that troubled the young Mexican in the early going. Alvarez played good defense, and he floored Kirkland in the first round, displaying his power and his technique in knocking down an aggressive opponent.

However, Kirkland kept coming at Alvarez and the fight entered the third round with both men working hard and the feeling that the fight would not go the distance. Kirkland continued to move forward, keeping “Canelo” against the ropes and scoring points with a barrage of punches while looking for an opening.

At around the two minute mark, Alvarez landed an uppercut that sent Kirkland to the canvas again. Kirkland got up, but it was clear that he did not have his legs under him. Kirkland was going to try to survive the round, but Alvarez had an opportunity to close out the fight. The question was would he take it?

Alvarez closed in on Kirkland, putting his opponent’s back to the ropes. Kirkland was hurt, but he was still dangerous, pawing with punches and loading up for one big shot.

But it was the big shot “Canelo” threw that ended the night. Kirkland never saw it coming, as he was loading up with a huge right hand of his own. The right Alvarez threw cracked Kirkland in the jaw, and his eyes went blank. His big right hand whizzed harmlessly over the head of a ducking Alvarez, providing the momentum for the spin that left Kirkland prone on the canvas.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez went on to defeat Miguel Cotto in his second fight of 2015 and he is clearly one of boxing’s biggest stars heading into 2016. On May 9th Alvarez added another reel to his highlight film when he knocked out James Kirkland with the 2015 “Knock Out of the Year”.

Photo by naoki fukuda

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